Cities that failed to meet California’s housing deadline seek rezoning extension

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Local and state officials are working on a deal to soften penalties affecting almost every Southern California city and county for failing to adopt state-approved housing plans by a February deadline.

Under a new law adopted just last fall, those cities now are required to rezone land needed to meet state housing goals by Oct. 15, instead of the usual three-year timeline.

If they fail to meet the rezoning deadline, the state can find them out of compliance with state housing laws, exposing them to lawsuits, stiff fines, a cutoff of housing grants and a loss of local control over planning decisions.

“Everyone was late, and so it’s been very hard because at the same time … (state housing officials) were sending letters saying, ‘You’re out of compliance, you could like lose your funding.’ And that is sending all the cities into, you know, crazy mode,” said Guy Strahl, chief of staff for bill author Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica. “It’s driving all the cities crazy.”

Just five cities and one county in the six-county Southern California Association of Governments region — Duarte, San Gabriel, Victorville, Westlake Village, Wildomar and the county of Ventura — met the Feb. 11 deadline to adopt a state-certified plan, or “housing element.”


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The remaining 191 jurisdictions in the SCAG region now have only until Oct. 15 to rezone land needed to accommodate huge increases in state-mandated homebuilding goals — a time-consuming task many cities said is impossible to accomplish by the fall.

Kome Ajise, SCAG’s executive director, said his agency had been seeking more time for rezoning since last year because the new measure, Assembly Bill 1398, “changed the rules of the game” just as the region’s localities were in the process of revising their housing plans.

“We knew immediately when 1398 passed it was going to be a problem,” Ajise said. “Given the number of cities that we had just beginning to get their housing elements done, it was going to be impossible to meet the deadline.”

A proposed compromise seeks to create a Southern California exception to AB 1398.

Strahl said housing advocates, representatives of the state Housing and Community Development Department and Bloom have been working on an amendment giving Southern California cities “a little more time” for the rezoning process.

The compromise bill’s provisions are still being worked out, Strahl said. Bloom is hoping to finalize its language soon so it can be introduced as an “urgency” measure, allowing it to take effect immediately upon passage.

“There’s multiple issues going on. … We’re still trying to make sure (state housing officials are) comfortable. We’re trying to make sure that the Senate is comfortable. So there’s a lot of people we’re still checking in with,” Strahl said.

‘Difficult task’

AB 1398 is one of the latest in a series of new laws drafted over the past five years to beef up the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, process. The half-century-old statute requires California cities and counties to plan for their fair share of housing at all income levels. As part of that process, local governments are required to update the housing element of their general plans at least once every eight years.

In response to the housing crisis, the state created new methods for assessing housing needs that resulted in the tripling of the SCAG region’s homebuilding goal to 1.34 million homes by the end of the decade. For some cities, the increased goals would boost their housing stock by 40% or more by October 2029.

Numerous cities said it would be impossible for them to complete the time-consuming rezoning process on such a massive scale since the process includes public hearings and environmental reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Meeting an Oct. 15 rezoning deadline “is going to be very difficult,” said Manhattan Beach Planning Manager Tylyn Mirzakhanian.

“It is a very difficult task to demonstrate capacity for 774 new units in a small city that is completely built out,” Mirzakhanian said. ” … We don’t have a single vacant site to rely on. And so, we were hit with very stringent requirements because of that.”

Long Beach Planning Manager Alison Spindler-Ruiz said her city can’t complete the rezoning of about 800 parcels until sometime next year, even though the city got a head start after recently updating its land-use plan.

“The rezoning process takes a whole host of extensive community engagements,” Spindler-Ruiz said. “(They include the) noticing of public hearings, mailings and (the holding of) public hearings by both the planning commission and the city council.”

The city of Los Angeles needs to rezone enough land to accommodate about 255,000 additional housing units, the city said in a statement. Officials identified about 243,000 “candidate sites” on the list for possible rezoning. Even three years may not be enough time to accomplish that task, the statement indicated.

“Rezoning efforts typically take several years from community engagement and initiation to adoption,” it said. “A one-year timeline appears to be infeasible … and even a three-year timeline is significantly expedited.”

In Redondo Beach, rezoning will require voter approval, said Community Development Director Brandy Forbes. The soonest the city would be able to get such a measure on the ballot would be March 2023.

“We can do it within a three-year timeframe,” Forbes said. “We just can’t do it in one year.”

Stiff sanctions

Under AB 1398, cities that fail to meet the October rezoning deadline would be ruled out of compliance with the state’s housing element law, setting in motion a wide array of potential consequences.

Non-compliant jurisdictions face the loss of numerous state and federal grants, including competitive grants for fixing roads, adding bike lanes, improving transit or building affordable housing.

They also cannot deny affordable housing projects for being inconsistent with zoning or the general plan and face possible lawsuits with fines ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 a month. Fines can be multiplied by six for jurisdictions that continue to be out of compliance.

Bloom said in a press release when AB 1398 was signed into law that the measure was designed to incentivize cities to adopt their updated housing elements on time.

“Unfortunately, there have been instances where cities deliberately adopt faulty housing elements to avoid building their fair share of housing,” Bloom said. “As the housing crisis grows in California, it is critical that every local government adopt a plan that meets the requirements of state law (and) that they do it on time.”

State officials say 185 Southern California cities and five of the region’s six counties failed to update their housing plans by a Feb. 11 deadline, exposing them to a host of sanctions if they don’t complete needed rezoning by next Oct. 15. A proposed deal now in the works would give those cities more time to rezone. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

SCAG chief Ajise said tougher planning and fair housing requirements, coupled with COVID-19 lockdowns and delays in determining local housing allocations, put the region’s cities and counties about six months behind in adopting their new housing elements.

Most cities had a draft housing element done by last October, but the back-and-forth process of getting housing department reviews and making revisions pushed most jurisdictions past the Feb. 11 deadline to get state approval.

“The process is not that easy,” Ajise said. ” … We didn’t expect that law would change the rules of the game while we were in process. So, (AB 1398) didn’t come as a surprise to us, but we were also not expecting that it would apply to us.”

Housing advocates expressed conditional support for a rezoning extension, saying they want to spare cities the consequence of losing affordable housing grants, but don’t want to let them off the hook for not getting their housing plans done on time.

“While we want there to be consequences, we don’t want to make the situation worse by (cities) losing affordable housing money,” said Leonora Camner, executive director of Abundant Housing LA.

“SCAG got caught in kind of the middle of this,” added Kennedy Commission Executive Director Cesar Covarrubias, an affordable housing advocate. “We understand there are cities like L.A. that have thousands of sites. It’s a bigger challenge for them. … But we need to hold cities accountable.”